Book Review: Lonely Asian Woman, by Sharon Lam

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_lonely_asian_woman.jpgA series of small, yet misjudged decisions by Paula escalates into a surreal period of her life, an honest representation of the years following university.

Sharon Lam’s Lonely Asian Woman is the culmination of all her best work; the hilarious everyday commentary of ‘Single Sad Postgrad’, the insight from a break from expectation in her architecture thesis and of course, the surrealism of her Starling poem ‘Everyone at the Pool Looked like Ewan McGregor.’

Lonely Asian Woman is Sharon Lam’s debut novel. She has already made a mark on Wellington; after completing her Masters of Architecture, for which she was a finalist in the NZIA student design awards for her thesis ‘Architecture for you, me and the bees’, she went on to study at Victoria’s International Institute of Modern Letters, for which this book was written. She has been published in Starling Magazine and wrote for Victoria University’s Salient student magazine including a weekly column ‘Single Sad Postgrad’ in 2016.

Sharon’s Salient column, with titles such as ‘Eulogy for My Love Life,’ ‘I Found Myself, You Can Ask Me Out Again Now,’ and ‘Boys (I Never Dated) But Am Definitely Over’ is a taste of the comedic surrealist tone of Lonely Asian Woman.

Our main character Paula, comes to a point of self-realisation as a ‘lonely Asian woman’. She is in her mid-twenties, unemployed and generally lacking in motivation. The blurb warns that this ‘is not the story of a young woman coming to her responsibilities in the world.’ This is an understatement.

Don’t expect a story focusing on the everyday life of an unemployed twenty-something to become a coming of age arc. Rather than acceptance of adult life, Paula’s series of misjudged decisions, patchy attempts at normalcy along with the occasional moment of joy is an honest representation of the years following university.

The struggles of Paula, which I have felt in this week alone:
1. Wanting financial independence but not wanting a job.
2. Wanting cheesecake but not being able to afford cheesecake.
3. Lack of motivation do something other than stay at home all day watching reality TV.

Lonely Asian Woman sets the bar or perhaps lifts the standard for the ‘coming of age’ genre. It is honest, it is genuine in its moments of friendship, loneliness, and mistakes. There is no clean arc and resolution, but small, everyday successes shine a hopeful light on the mundane reality of our own lives.

The drifting of Paula’s thoughts as well as striking moments of self-reflection make her an utterly believable and sometimes tragically relatable character. Throughout the day to day of Paula’s life, we have insight into her thoughts; weighing up the Taoist definition of peaches as the ‘fruit of immortality’ and cost on a supermarket trip, reading the brand name HEAVENS SAKE in the voices of a geriatric Finnish man, Barney and a drive-thru speaker. An interesting figure was Paulab, a disturbingly autonomous corporeal representation of the side of Paula she may prefer to ignore. Paulab appears abruptly at random times throughout the book, almost like a flatmate who you put up with despite their sheer lack of likeable qualities.

However, in moments of weakness and general lack of common sense, Paula left me in disbelief. The plot line became increasingly bizarre, even more so for the slow normalisation of all that was happening to Paula. A series of small, yet bad decisions by Paula escalates following an incident in which she steals a full supermarket trolley. From that moment on, one must be careful not to overthink as they read. Believe me, Paula doesn’t.

The strength of Lam’s writing, as with ‘Single Sad Postgrad’ is her ability to simultaneously make the mundane hilarious and insightful. She excels in short form writing, elaborating on small stories or a train of thought. Lonely Asian Woman switches between conventional slice-of-life structure to lists, tables and sets of instructions. A personal favourite of mine was the comparison between Paula and her boyfriend, Eric according to the idea that ‘while there are two types of people in this world, there an infinite number of types of people in this world.’

I went into this book with high expectations from Lam (her memory at architecture school, her Salient writing). I came out slightly confused as to what exactly Paula had actually experienced. When one attempts to read Lonely Asian Woman with ‘real world’ logic, the result is confusion and disbelief. My advice is to read the book in the same way in which Paula navigates her life; take it as it comes with an eye for the humorous side, and you will eventually come to normalise the surreal. While the plot shocked me in places, it was an unusually satisfying read. One which left me looking at everyday life with an almost alien perspective of the ridiculous situations we normalise. Refreshing and relatable, a definite recommendation.

by Lara van der Raaij

Lonely Asian Woman
by Sharon Lam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473470326

Book review: Credit in the Straight World, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

cv_credit_in_the_straight_worldAvailable at selected bookstores nationwide.

This novel starts promisingly. Written in first person, its narrator George Tolland describes himself as “born deaf, partially blind, and I suppose mute, all of which was due to plain bad luck if you believe in luck, and syphilis if you don’t”. The voice is sassy, engaging, skeptical, and clear, what’s more — none of this ‘every character sounds the same’ business that you might find in another novel. Soon, we are introduced to George’s brother, Frank Tolland, and their town, a make-believe (and yet all too believable) Canterbury community called Manchester. All sketched out in quick, wry strokes, Gnanalingam’s characterization of the history and character of Manchester is absorbing, and the satirical tone of the novel is set as we enter the  the Tollands’ worlds and indeed, town.

As the narrative sweeps through the twentieth century, and the Tollands’ family history in Manchester – heading towards its final culmination in Frank Tolland’s immense, Allan-Hubbard-like success and his similarly Hubbard-like downfall, – we are treated to the same clear-cut characterization, satirical humour and descriptions of small town, close-minded life that we encountered in the Prologue. Pauline, Frank’s wife, was a character who always piqued my interest whenever she appeared, given her particular brand of potty-mouthed, passive-aggressive subversion of her husband. And George himself proved to be good company—he’s a brilliant person, well read, sarcastic and relatable.

As I said, this novel starts promisingly, and it certainly has a lot of the elements that make up a good novel. Why then did it not quite hit the spot? Ultimately, I think it’s a question of variety. The abiding impression I got from this book was one of a river streaming past with very little change in speed or pace, direction or intensity. This feeling was probably compounded by Gnanalingam’s extremely long sentences. Though it’s clear that this is an expression of George’s character (George explicitly says, “I would much rather have people read me writing free and flowing sentences”), the preponderance of these kinds of sentences definitely contributed to the feeling of sameness, and the sheer length of some of the sentences made these sentences sometimes hard to follow.

In terms of pace, however, this does change as we near the climax, and I began to engage with the characters in a different way—for example, I began to wonder how George had been so incapable of seeing Frank’s foibles, and this injected a nice note of doubt into the narrative. But overall the stream of this novel stayed too much the same. Nevertheless, this novel still deserves to be read and bought, for its wonderful characterisation and sly tone.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Credit in the Straight World
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence and Gibson Publishing Collective

Book Review: Ad Lib, by Thomasin Sleigh

This book is available in bookstores now.

This is the story of Kyla Crane, mourning the dcv_ad_libeath of her mother, a famous musician. Shortly after, her life becomes a reality television show – in which people turn up that claim to play an important role in her life, despite her never having met them before, things being shifted around and her life being pushed in directions she is not prepared to take it.

An engaging and somewhat unusual story, the sort that makes you question reality and fate. The writing is candid, enjoyable, the characters grasp your attentions and – to a point – affections. The plot moves smoothly, like waves that lap against you, enticing you deeper There is something poetic and eloquent, almost artistic, about the narration. At times the plot seems almost surreal, as though the characters are not so much real people in a novel, but characters in a story within the story. There are many questions – some of which will be answered – and a few strange, but fitting twists, as well as multiple layers. This is the sort of tale that probably needs to be read twice, or even thrice, to fully appreciate the nuances and levels and to fully understand the bigger picture.

I found the cameramen particularly interesting – they seemed almost alien, with the way their interests would focus, abruptly, on the most mundane things and the song – more of a chant, really – that they began concocting. They added an eerie otherness to proceedings. The lack of names for many of the minor players: the aunt, the cameraman, the imposter, aided in this, as did the repeating theme of characters called “Michael”.

This tale, like fame, is nebulous and ever-shifting. It is beautifully written, intriguing, oddly captivating and makes for a compulsive read. Literary and thought-provoking.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Ad Lib
by Thomasin Sleigh
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473274849